I rise on a point of personal privilege as a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter.
For those looking for a glib analogy to describe the disarray of the Donald Trump White House, it has suddenly become fashionable to pick on Carter, the last one-term Democratic president.
A recent Huffington Post article highlighted the Republicans’ supposed “Jimmy Carter problem.” And over the weekend Mike Allen, in his new morning newsletter for Axios, ballyhooed a blind quote from a Trump adviser moaning, “It’s starting to remind people of the Carter administration.”
I am groping for the best way to describe the historical amnesia embedded in this wrongheaded Carter-equals-Trump equation. It is akin to saying that Carter’s 1976 campaign confession that he had nurtured “lust” in his heart was comparable to Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape bragging about sexual assault.
What has been lost in the mists of history is that Carter remained a relatively popular president during his first year in office with his approval rating in the Gallup Poll never dropping below 50 percent.
Trump’s approval numbers, in contrast, are best examined by a submarine. After two months in office, according to Gallup, Trump was roughly half as popular (39 percent) as Carter (75 percent) at a similar juncture.
But presidents are not judged by approval ratings alone. Inheriting a recessionary economy, Carter passed, in the spring of 1977, a stimulus package that included tax cuts and funding for an eventual 725,000 public service jobs. Partly as a result, the unemployment rate dropped to below 6 percent at the end of 1978.
It is ironic that the stimulus was attacked at the time by liberals and labor unions for being too timid. In reality, it proved to be the last New Deal-style job-creation program in American history. As a former aide to Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, I still believe that these liberal aspects of the Carter administration get far too little historical credit.
It also must be stressed how prescient Carter was in 1977 on energy and the need for conservation. While the legislative battles were grueling and sometimes unsuccessful, Carter did win an early victory with the emergency deregulation of natural gas. And in August 1977, the president signed legislation establishing the Department of Energy.
At a moment when Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin remains undimmed, Carter should be remembered as the first presidential apostle of human rights. Speaking at Notre Dame in May 1977, Carter hopefully declared, “We are now free of that inordinate fear of communism, which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.”
OK, OK, Carter had his flaws as president. I am not suggesting that the Carter Library be moved to the base of Mt. Rushmore.
The slow downward trajectory of Carter’s presidency began in the summer of 1977 when Bert Lance, his OMB director and close friend, was forced to resign in a scandal over his prior stewardship of a small bank in Georgia. The byzantine details of Lance’s sweetheart loans, reported breathlessly at the time, seem quaint now that Trump and Co. govern as if ethics rules were for little people.
A major Carter problem as president — and this alone should silence all Trump comparisons — was that he was too earnest and hardworking to be interesting. As influential New York Times columnist James Reston wrote in December 1977, “Carter does not convey a ‘sense of authority.’ He is too private and remote to jam his programs through Congress.”
Looking back on the Carter years, the problem was not that the former one-term governor of Georgia was too much of an outsider, but rather that he became too much of an establishmentarian. A presidency in which Washington super-lawyer and fixer Robert Strauss was a key figure would never embody the populism that helped elect a candidate who promised Americans “a government as good as its people.”
Almost all the problems that now define Carter as a failed president only emerged in 1979, his third year in the White House. An oil crisis produced gasoline lines across the country and the inflation rate — which had also bedeviled the prior three presidents — approached 10 percent annually.
Carter responded in July 1979 by delivering what is remembered as the “malaise” speech, even though that word was never uttered as the president talked about the “crisis of confidence” afflicting America. But what is forgotten — amid the ridicule surrounding Carter’s legacy — was that the speech itself was popular with the voters.
I didn’t work on the speech, but I did write some of Carter’s follow-up addresses. As a result, I read dozens of emotional letters that ordinary citizens sent to the president, responding to his call for national unity in the face of the energy crisis. What upended Carter was not the speech, but his subsequent decision to fire four Cabinet members in a self-inflicted government shake-up.
As for the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, it was partly triggered by the president agreeing to admit the exiled Shah to America for medical treatment. In making this fateful decision, Carter was swayed against his own instincts by appeals from Henry Kissinger and banker David Rockefeller. Once again, Carter was victimized by his hunger for establishment approval.
Granted, there is one way that President Carter was like President Trump.
Billy Carter, the scapegrace brother of the 39th president, kept coming up with outlandish schemes (Billy Beer) to profit off his White House connection. But there was also a big difference — Billy Carter never served in government nor did he operate a brewery with the Carter name on it a few blocks from the White House.